Cutting-Edge Mistakes: 6 Things You Should Never Do With a Knife or Axe
Do you baton wood? Use ferro rods? Sharpen blades by machine? Here's why you should stop doing all of these things and more
This all started after I’d written a review of the Helle Nord knife. The company sent my editor a photo of someone batoning a piece of firewood with a Nord, and the editor asked me if it was OK to run the photo with my review.
“Batoning is silly,” I emailed back. “That’s why the axe was invented. But the readers seem to like the idea.”
It occurred to my editor that batoning is probably not the only thing people do with knives—and related tools—that they should stop doing, and I write about that. Which is why we are here today. Below are five knife-related things you should stop doing right now. Or at least right after you read this.
1. Stop Batoning Wood
One of the things you learn in the outdoors is that the less work you do, the more efficiently you function. If you paddle a canoe, you find that the fewer, longer, strokes you take, the farther you can go in a day. If you need to split wood for a fire and choose to whack the spine of your knife blade with a club in order to do it, you’ll exert a lot more energy than you need to. That’s because a knife blade is designed to cut, not split, and therefore it’s made thin, which is the exact opposite of what you want.
On the other hand, if you have a cruiser axe, you can tap a fair size piece of wood, and it will fall in two pieces, leaving you free to listen to the loons and swat mosquitoes.
2. Stop Using a Knife with Ferro Sticks
Suddenly, lots of knife sheaths have a little loop sewn on the spine to accommodate a ferro stick. I’m not a fan of ferro sticks. They work. (You can see them work on You Tube. I notice, however, that no one demonstrates them in a sleet storm.) But there are conditions. You need a fixed-blade knife (no folders if you value your fingers) with nice, sharp corners on its spine and no coating to keep the rust away. You have to scrape the rustproofing off the ferro stick in advance. If your ferro stick is too short, or too skinny, or too hard, it will suck. If you haven’t practiced with it to acquire the necessary technique, you will suck.
Ferro-stickery also assumes that you will have all your coordination when you must build a fire, fast, or freeze. I once watched an elderly friend whose hands shook from age try to build and light a fire under ideal conditions using bone-dry wood, an axe, a knife, and kitchen matches. He couldn’t do it. What happens if your hands are shaking from cold rather than age, and it’s raining, or snowing, or blowing a gale?
And there’s this: Before the invention of friction matches, people on the American frontier carried both fixed-blade knives and flint-and-steel firestarters every day of their lives. The knives never got involved in the fire-building, except perhaps to whittle fuzz sticks. The striker was called a firesteel, and looked like a giant letter C. It worked like a ferro stick, and let me quote from Carl P. Russell, who was a leading expert on the guns and tools of mountain men: “The method was crude and troublesome,” to which I add, “even when used by experts.”
If Jim Bridger were alive today and you showed him a ferro rod, he’d say “F**k that, who’s got a Bic?”
3. Stop Buying Small Hatchets
The one-hand ax has been around forever, so it must be useful, but is it the best tool for the job? In The Ax Book, which is the definitive work on this tool, author Dudley Cook points out that if the blade of a hatchet goes in the wrong direction, it’s going to be a lot closer to your person than an ax blade would. And that because of its light weight, it doesn’t cut as well as an axe, which causes you to swing it harder, which costs you control, and because you’re able to use only one hand, you have a much greater chance of losing your grip altogether.
I once saw the hickory handle on a small hatchet made by a highly reputable company shatter into splinters on its very first swing. There are hatchets with full-length tangs extending from the head that will not do this, but the ones I’ve handled are so small and light that they’re next to useless.
The best hatchet I’ve used is the Gransfors Hunter’s Axe, which takes a razor edge, is heavy enough, and has a long enough handle, to do some good. It can even be swung two-handed. But better than this is the three-quarter-sized axe called a Hudson’s Bay, or a cruiser axe. Back in the days when timber cruisers roamed the forests cutting blaze marks in harvestable trees, they didn’t use hatchets. They used three-quarter axes.
4. Stop Working Blind
By this I mean losing track of where the knife blade is and where your hands are. There are two types of working blind. The first comes when you shove both hands inside a body cavity and work by feel, the knife in one hand and the other hand groping internal organs. Sooner or later, you’ll go to cut a windpipe and take a couple of fingers instead. Or slash open your palm. The problem is exacerbated by the coating of blood and fat on your knife and your hands.
If you can’t see where both hands are, and where the knife blade is, stop what you’re doing and open up the body cavity some more and prop it open. If you’re faced with this job at sunset, as so often happens, get the belly open, haul out as many of the guts as you can, take a leak around the carcass to keep the coyotes off, and wait until daylight to finish.
The other source of cuts comes from taking your eyes off whatever you’re doing when someone distracts you. Let’s say you’re skinning away, and a friend walks up and asks you to explain the meaning of life. You turn to answer him, still slashing, and that’s when you cut the hell out of yourself. My favorite distraction story comes from a friend who was hired at a pattern-making factory in Vermont. He and his fellow new hires were getting a lecture on safety from the shop foreman who was demonstrating on a table saw. The foreman turned to his audience for a second, the blade still spinning, and cut off a hand.
5. Stop Trusting Factory Knife Sheaths
Do not assume that the sheath that came with your knife is up to the job. A proper sheath must not turn loose of the knife unless you pull it out on purpose. I’ve never met a metal snap I would trust for any length of time. The Scandinavians figured out long ago that the best way to keep from losing your knife was to have the sheath swallow it so that only an inch of handle shows. That works.
A good sheath also must not allow the blade to punch through. It must not damage the blade. Sheaths are where knifemakers—factories and custom smiths alike—cut costs. Leather or Kydex or nylon, it makes no difference. A lot of them just plain suck, and you are best off throwing the thing away and having a good one made.
6. Stop Using Sharpening Machines
All knives get dull eventually, and then you have to sharpen them. The traditional method is by hand, on a stone. This can be slow, and it takes skill. Some people turn to sharpening machines. These require no skill, but they can burn the temper out of a blade or grind it into uselessness and do so very quickly.
I believe in sharpening by hand. It took me a long time to learn because back then there were no YouTube tutorials, all the written instruction I could find was rudimentary, and much of the advice I got was bad, or worse. In the process, I ruined more than a few blades, some of them good ones.
With all respect to WorkSharp, which makes the only good electronic sharpeners I’ve used, I’m still a firm believer in doing the job by hand. I use the WorkSharp Benchstone Knife Sharpener and a Crock Stick, and that’s it. I employ the Crock Stick much as one would a leather strop, to get the finest possible edge.
You’re best served if you never let a knife get dull. Most of them come from the factory with terrific edges, and it’s very little work to keep that edge. Bringing a blade back from the dead is a lot of work.
Never try to polish a knife on a buffing wheel. A wheel can snatch it out of your hands and fling it with terrific force at your legs or your feet or worse. George Herron, who is in the Knifemakers Guild Hall of Fame, had mornings when he was afraid to polish, and he’d do something else until he felt better about it. If polish you must, do it by hand.